Poem of the Week

Christmas, we can no longer ignore or deny it, is coming. The goose is beginning to look a little on the chubby side. And I’m actually rather excited! I thought I’d begin festivities with John Betjeman and his take on Advent in 1955. Even then, he was worried that the true spirit of Christmas was turning into something far more mercantile and insincere:

We dole out bribes we call a present
To those to whom we must be pleasant
For business reasons. Our defence is
These bribes are charged against expenses
And bring relief in Income Tax.

For Betjeman, the real meaning of Christmas was – understandably – a religious one. And yet, even if you don’t share his faith, there is also a kind of Christmas spirit that is both secular and sincere:

The only cards that really count
Are that extremely small amount
From real friends who keep in touch
And are not rich but love us much.

Which reminds me of this great bit from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge tells his jovial nephew Fred to keep his ‘Merry Christmas’ and that he can’t understand what he’s so merry about: Christmas had never done him, Fred, any good…

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

Betjeman was in many ways old-fashioned, as a poet and as a man, but in the best and most charming sense of the term. I hope you enjoy his easy style and regular rhymes, which manage at the same time to be merry and mournful, pointed and poignant: rather like the man himself.

 

Advent 1955

The Advent wind begins to stir
With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
It’s dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
And in between we only see
Clouds hurrying across the sky
And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
And branches bending to the gale
Against great skies all silver pale
The world seems travelling into space,
And travelling at a faster pace
Than in the leisured summer weather
When we and it sit out together,
For now we feel the world spin round
On some momentous journey bound –
Journey to what? to whom? to where?
The Advent bells call out ‘Prepare,
Your world is journeying to the birth
Of God made Man for us on earth.’

And how, in fact, do we prepare
The great day that waits us there
For the twenty-fifth day of December,
The birth of Christ? For some it means
An interchange of hunting scenes
On coloured cards. And I remember
Last year I sent out twenty yards,
Laid end to end, of Christmas cards
To people that I scarcely know –
They’d sent a card to me, and so
I had to send one back. Oh dear!
Is this a form of Christmas cheer?
Or is it, which is less surprising,
My pride gone in for advertising?
The only cards that really count
Are that extremely small amount
From real friends who keep in touch
And are not rich but love us much.
Some ways indeed are very odd
By which we hail the birth of God.

We raise the price of things in shops,
We give plain boxes fancy tops
And lines which traders cannot sell
Thus parcell’d go extremely well.
We dole out bribes we call a present
To those to whom we must be pleasant
For business reasons. Our defence is
These bribes are charged against expenses
And bring relief in Income Tax.
Enough of these unworthy cracks!
‘The time draws near the birth of Christ’.
A present that cannot be priced
Given two thousand years ago
Yet if God had not given so
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the Baby in the manger.

John Betjeman

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